A Son’s Voice

by Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr

in SpotlightOn

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(For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.)

So I was supposed to write this blog several weeks ago. Contractually. Seriously. I am a recipient of the Fox Fellowship, and most of my fellowship activities have been completed — including three Shakespearean roles (one supporting, two leads), several voice and speech sessions conducted by me for NYC high school students of color, and my own training with Voice, Speech and Inclusion expert Leslie Ishii, Shakespeare scholar and acting coach Rob Clare, voice and speech expert Beth McGuire, and Alexander teacher Kim Guzowski. When the fellowship period began in the Fall of 2012 (it can last up to 2 ½ years and I used every bit of that time) I wanted to do so much more in terms of travel and study. But I have found that my fellowship’s purpose has become much more intensely personal — so much so that the rules of the fellowship have become irrelevant and this time of growth, learning, and chaos has a calendar of its own. Though the fellowship’s end date was officially March 2015, the actual end is happening right now as I sit in a hospital room in Las Vegas watching my father fight for his life.

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When I brought my 3-year-old son in to see his “Papa”, my father had just begun to eat his breakfast. He looked weathered, his face sunken since the last time my son had seen him eight months earlier. The moment my father saw my son, his eyes watered and he said, “My son.” My father wanted to hold him, but my son was a bit reluctant because of the wires or the hospital smell or my father’s new physical state. But my son eventually went there and sat. And after awhile my father was unable to speak. This was not a cognitive issue, but as he explained to my little brother later, “Every time I speak to family, my voice just leaves. I can’t speak. I try to say the words but the voice won’t come. I get so emotional. I start thinking.”

I can’t count how many times my father used to say to me, “Speak up, son!”, as I was coming up. Whether I was withering under his intense interrogations of my wrongdoings or trying to explain something that happened to me in school, he always ordered me (he’s an Air Force man!) to speak up for myself and make myself heard at all costs. For example, when I played Little League and Pony League baseball I used to be the only kid who would “chatter” in the infield. Chatter is when infielders would yell “Hey batter, batter. Hey batter, batterrrrrr, SWING!” Everybody hated it. Even the boys and the one girl on my teams. But my dad loved it. And my coaches did too. At least I think they did. They never stopped me. The one time my chatter found a friendly audience was when we played Puerto Rico on our way to the Pony League World Series. The Puerto Ricans, both the players and the fans, LOVED it when I chattered. They even chattered back. And I loved it. At the end of the game, which we won in epic and dramatic fashion, they asked to take pictures with me. What made my chatter, my voice connect with Puerto Rico and not with my Anglo, mostly white compatriots? Was it culture? Are “colored folks” just too damned loud?

Volume is most definitely a Simmons tradition. I remember being embarrassed repeatedly at how loud my father was in everything he did. Talking, burping, laughing, coughing, and dear God sneezing. He could whisper when he needed to. But if he didn’t need to, he’d speak loudly and clearly. Some would call it a bark, I’d call it more of a short, roiling rumble. I’d always be telling him, “Dad, shhh!” He’d say, “Don’t shush me, boy!” And he laughed even louder than he spoke. I inherited (or learned? which is it?) all of it. Actors love it when I come to their shows, because I don’t do tepid-new-york-theatre-professional-and-lifelong-theatre-goer laughs. I laugh loudly, lustily, like a theatre layperson who doesn’t give a shit about theatre’s laugh etiquette. Boy, you should see me in a Manhattan Theatre Club or Roundabout Theatre or any uptown theatre audience. Oof! It’s like listening to James Brown sing in a mausoleum. “Silence, Silence, Silence, HAY! Silence, Silence, Silence, HAY! Silence, Silence, Silence, Heh-Heh-Heh, HAY!!!”

We laughed loudly as a family. We lived loudly. We were not, are not unassuming. We aren’t worried about decorum. We just worry about living.

One of the core activities of my fellowship aside from my learning and performing was to turnkey my newfound knowledge and experience with voice and speech over to the myriad high schoolers of color Epic Theatre Ensemble works with every year. Epic’s Shakespeare Remix program is one of the few in the country that provides an opportunity for students to perform Shakespeare, while at the same time adapting it to their own lives. Scripts for Remixes are usually about 80 percent Shakespeare and 10-20 percent student writing. In this way, students are able to enter the play more on their own terms — investigating the connections that THEY see in the work as opposed to some ambitious director or Shakespeare scholar.

Though the program has been around for over a decade, there were always issues of clarity for the students.`Either they spoke too softly to fill the theatre space, or more often, they had trouble articulating the words clearly. Articulation is a problem even for the most experienced of actors when it comes to Shakespeare unless you’ve been trained extensively. Although I had little in common with our students other than my brown skin and an interest in theatre, like them I was not trained. I got a BA in English (and 6 or 7 theatre roles) from William and Mary, moved to Washington DC and decided I was an actor. And I acted. And I taught. And I acted. For nearly 25 years before the Fox. I had a vague notion of how to use my voice, a sense that whenever I nailed down my intentions very specifically it carried my articulation toward clarity. But like the students, I was limited in what I could ultimately do as an actor with both confidence and clarity.

But as I embarked on the fellowship, I began to see the role of voice and speech training for students with new eyes. I realized that whenever Epic brought in a voice and speech coach to work with our students, I could feel the students in the room begin to drift away in terms of investment. They’d do what the instructor asked — these were, at the end of the day, amazingly committed students that sometimes had to run a gauntlet of squalor, negativity, and/or danger just to get to school that day. Sometimes they’ve fought to be there, so they’ll do the exercises. However, the idea that me or my colleagues would teach a room full of brown, Latino, Caribbean, and African students how to speak Shakespeare in Standard American seems at best misguided and at worst, unintentionally racist. No. Racist isn’t the right term. Perhaps a better word than racist in this case would be exceptionalist.

The problem is not the dialect itself. The problem is that the idea of an American Standard is an oxymoron. There is no standard american (lower case on purpose here) dialect any more than there’s a standard british dialect. Standard american (still lowering the case here!) was invented not by culture, but by theatre and film makers looking to find a uniform way of speaking classical, heightened, or urbane language. So what we are doing is asking people, these students from Trinidad, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Kenya, the Ukraine, or North Carolina to speak in a way that presumes that how they already speak is somehow incorrect. All while expecting them to perform with…authenticity. This standard american (third time!) exceptionalism is enough to make an actor thoroughly confused, angry, or, in the case of even our most accomplished students, completely shut down.

So, halfway through my fellowship, I began to wonder how could we enable students to speak Shakespeare clearly in their authentic voices. That’s when I met Leslie Ishii.

Leslie is a longtime director and conservatory faculty member for East West Players, perhaps the seminal Asian American theatre company in the country. TCG connected me with her after I expressed my evolution on the issue of voice and speech and students of color. A certified Fitzmaurice teacher, as well as an accomplished actor and teaching artist, she had been working on the forefront of this issue for many years. We met in a diner a few blocks from the TCG office in midtown Manhattan and talked at length about her journey in working with both trained actors and non-practitioners on increasing their own awareness of their native voices. There is a bit of cultural anthropology in her work with actors. She pokes and prods and teases out the particulars of an actor’s heritage based on what she’s hearing in her/his voice and speech work. I won’t quote her here. My journalistic skills are rusty, and I’m not sure I could do justice to her bristling intelligence or her steadfast refusal to separate her politics and beliefs from her art. Suffice it to say that we talked long and hard about this issue and she invited me to participate in a workshop in L.A. that would investigate voice and speech training, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

The weekend workshop consisted of Fitzmaurice vocal work, investigations of our own privilege, scrambling and reassembling our left brain-right brain muscles, and a visit to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. That’s a gross reduction of all we did, however the impact of the workshop was huge for me. I was left with so many questions. How did I go so many years working with students without being intentional about honoring their individual legacies? What does this intentionality mean for my own work as an actor? How do we make this work part of the foundation of actor training programs? Are there programs that incorporate this in their work? I’m excited to continue this work with Leslie in the future.

There’s a moment seemingly in every veteran black actor’s career (particularly August Wilson experts) that borders on cliche. I’ve heard the story several times over the last 20 years. The veteran actor begins work on, say, an August Wilson play alongside a newly trained black actor from Yale or Julliard (insert your training program here). The young actor has a line like, “He fixing to get his ass killed is what I’m saying.” The young actor keeps hitting the hard “g” in the word “fixing”. The veteran actor privately tells the young actor that even though it’s written with the “g”, the “g” is mostly silent, so it’s more like “fixin”. The hard “g” makes the word rattle around and clang within the poetry of Wilson’s work. And our young trained actor says to our veteran actor as he points to the script, “No. I see right here. It says fixing. It’s spelled out. Fixing. Thanks though!” The veteran actor gives up, hoping that the young actor will reclaim his legacy like Boy Willie and Bernice’s piano.

We talk a lot about “owning” the language of Shakespeare. Owning is an interesting term. When performers from different cultures are taught to believe that there is a right way to sound speaking Shakespeare, it robs them of the ability and desire to speak clearly in the way they already speak. They have to work that much harder to bring their own deep cultural roots to bear on the Bard’s poetry.

My wife and son are saying goodbye. I think we all sense that this is a final goodbye, but my three-year-old doesn’t get that, of course. My son is hugging his mother’s legs and my father, in his weakened state, keeps saying “Samuel, come here.” Sam won’t do it — he says, “I don’t want to.” And then, in a voice that seems to come from the depths of his soul, his fears, his 71-year battle of being a black man in America, he bellows, “SAMUEL! BE KIND! I AM YOUR GRANDFATHER! IF YOU’RE NOT KIND TO ME I WON’T BE YOUR FRIEND NO MORE!” My son comes closer. “COME HERE!” my father says, his head exploding from his neck like a bullet, his eyes like saucers. “I will…I want you to say this loud,” my father says. He opens his mouth several times to speak again, finally saying, “You done made me forget what I was gonna say. Can you give an old man some time to think? Can you be a friend for a little more?” Samuel nods his head vigorously. My father says, “You act like you’re not talking to me. Are you talking to me?” Samuel says, “Yes, sir!” My father: “Oh you learned something?” Samuel: “Yes Sir!” My father: “Are you SURE!” Samuel: “YES SIR!” “Well SPEAK UP, THEN!” “YES SIR!!!” “I heard you that time. And you will honor your mother and father, that your days will be long upon this land your God, our God has given us. You understand?” Samuel: “Yeah.” My father: “Say Yes.” Samuel: “Yes!” My father: “Now you remember this, okay?” Silence. “WILL YOU REMEMBER THIS? Or you can’t TALK?” “YES SIR!” “You remember this!”

Following Leslie’s workshop, I’ve got another big session with several of Epic’s students that summer. And I have no idea what I’m going to do with them. I mean, I know I’ll try out some of the exercises I learned from Leslie, Beth, and Rob. But I’m kind of panicking here. How do we get to the crux of the cultural issues embedded in voice/speech work without them glazing over. These students, though there is growth to be had in terms of voice and speech, are highly skilled and intelligent. They’ll smell bull shit a mile away. Then I remember the key thing Leslie shared with me: ask questions. Begin with everyone around the circle stating their full name (no matter how many names), where they were born, a grandmother’s full name and her birthplace. The nature of the participants’ responses are sure to bring up questions relevant to the relationship between themselves and their voices.

And it worked. Half of the class, maybe 11 students were Latina/o. So when they got to their long series of middle names or their birthplaces, their heads shot down, their voices got soft, or they literally tried to make themselves smaller in the room. This led to a question about why it’s so hard to state our full names. What robs us of our clear voice at that moment? Which led us to the question: what was the moment when you felt your voice was taken away?

Some students talked of being teased about the way they said a word. Others talked about messing up a public speaking moment. Still others confessed to shame about where they came from. One young lady refused to speak in her native accent because it “sounds backwards.” This is exactly the place that I want to get our students. If I can get them to investigate, to invest in their speaking voice as a primal mode of communication and artistic expression, they will not only become better actors, but also leapfrog their often sullen, monosyllabic, and iPhone addicted contemporaries (no matter their cultural heritage) as they enter college and the workforce. This work could be life-changing.

What I’ve shared with you is just a spark. My personal spark. The aforementioned session with the Epic students became an effort to help them reclaim their voices. But I’ve only just begun to poke at the coiled monster that is voice, speech, and inclusion. And I’m not sure if that poke I gave to Epic’s students last summer will change their lives. After our recollections of losing our voices were completed, a student said that “I haven’t thought about that in years. I never thought about my voice like that.” If that’s all we get as part of that investigation, I’ll take it every day of the week.

This country will try to silence my son. Samuel will realize, sometime in the next three years, that there’s a bullseye on his forehead. It could be at school. The playground. A soccer practice. He will learn the hard way that his white mother’s privilege will not transfer to him. That the people in his society, including members of his own tribe, will make him work twice as hard to be understood, to be loved, to be heard. And he will internalize this struggle, bearing it with an imperceptible grace that no one, perhaps not even his own parents, will acknowledge. Because if he doesn’t carry that struggle with grace, if he doesn’t learn how to take the doubt, accusations, and just plain stupid assumptions hurled at him from the dominant culture and turn them into a sublime game of cultural chess, then he will perish.

In other words, I have no choice but to unfurl that aforementioned coiled monster. To look it in the eye and ask the questions that I don’t want the answers to. The questions that my father never had to ask because he already knew the answer to them. To quote Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, my father “LIVED the answer!” 24 years of fighting racism in the Air Force, and another 30 years of training me and my two younger brothers to speak up and look him in the eye. Yes. He lived it.

My father was a singer. During his career in the Air Force and in retirement, he entered many talent show contests at Air Force bases. In fact, he and a group of other airmen had a shot at a recording back in the late 60s, but he didn’t want to be away from mother and me late at night. Usually he’d sing ballads, and later in life almost exclusively sang songs by Larry Graham. At my father’s wake, I put together a mix of his favorite music and played it during the entrance of his friends and family to the funeral home chapel in North Las Vegas. When Larry Graham’s “One In A Million You” came on, most of the people in the chapel began to weep. My stepmother Rosie explained to me that father used to sing the karaoke version of the song at parties over the years. They were listening to Larry Graham, but they were remembering my father’s deep, rich bass voice, which even in death could not be silenced.

My father died two weeks after I began this post. As I began to construct the service for my father’s funeral, I remembered that my friend (okay, also an ex), Amy Jo Phillips (Show Boat, South Pacific national tour, Little Shop of Horrors) would be in Vegas that week. She knew my father and his second family. A musical theatre veteran on Broadway, national tours and in the regions, Amy Jo spent the last few years caring for her father, who died as they were on their way to catch a plane to Vegas in December. I asked her if, while she was in Vegas, she wouldn’t mind singing something at my father’s funeral. She said she’d be honored, but that she couldn’t guarantee what she’d sound like because she hadn’t sung publicly during the last few years of her father’s life.

Amy Jo sang Amazing Grace at my father’s funeral at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery chapel. Her voice came up through the ground, through her mouth, through the chapel, ripping through the souls of everyone there. She certainly did not sound like someone who hadn’t sung in a few years. At the risk of seeming trite, she sounded like an angel. Or an emissary from the place where souls go to rest, a caramel-complexioned emissary that may have been harangued, exhorted, willed in the beyond by my father to speak up, girl! Come on, now! That’s not loud enough! SING IT!


Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. is Artistic Director of Civic Ensemble, a community-based theatre in Ithaca, NY co-founded with Sarah K. Chalmers and Jennifer Herzog.  For Civic, he directed Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings and co-produced Judy Tate’s Slashes of Light. Godfrey was Producing Artist in charge of New Artist Development for Off-Broadway’s Epic Theatre Ensemble, appearing in A More Perfect UnionWidowers’ Houses (which Godfrey co-adapted with Ron Russell)and Measure for Measure, among other playsAt Epic, he also co-wrote and starred in a documentary play about the election of President Barack Obama, Dispatches From (A)mended America. Godfrey is a 2012 TCG/Fox Fellow and a participant in the SPARK Leadership Program, funded by American Express, The Joyce Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by Theatre Communications Group. He is a lifetime member of Ensemble Studio Theatre.

  • Bible Thumper

    Though he has quite the acting credits, I am looking forward to seeing him become a playwright.

  • Nina Domingue Glover

    Godfrey, I am so sorry that I missed you when you came back to Cleveland for #M4BL…this piece hit me right in the heart! Being a native New Orleanian, I remember (several instances) when I lost, or allowed my voice to be taken. In the theatre, of course, my accent was too thick. I was beaten out of me in my training, to the point that when I wrote my thesis in grad school, and decided to set it in my Native New Orleans home, I had to STUDY to remember what it should sound like…then the pivotal moment of brief study in London, and a visiting voice teacher in grad school, who embraced the gumbo dripping from my voice and encouraged me to reclaim it and use it whenever I could. I identify with so many points here, the loudness of family, the realization that I used to try to make myself small, so many things…I will sit with this for a while. So, thank you, for sharing and speaking up. Ciao!

  • Godfrey Simmons

    Thanks Nina! Just seeing this now. That’s deep — how we have to re-study our own culture to get back what was lost. I know that you work a lot with young people. I’m wondering what your experience is in terms of working with the young voices in your neck of the woods in Cleveland. Because I imagine being a young person of color in Cleveland is a lot of things right now.

  • Barbara Adams

    Thanks for this , Godfrey. …it strikes many deep chords….my father also was air force, and we had to develop our voices just to resist him..
    By the way, I saw Sarah at Taymir’s Midsummer. ..the rude mechanicals scenes in it exemplify what you’re talking of here…one in full black dialect, and the boy who plays Thisbe with heavily Spanish -accented English….it was the most moving Thisbe I ever saw.
    Barbara

  • Godfrey Simmons

    Thanks Barbara! Wish I’d seen that Midsummer. Given our parentage, no wonder we’re in the theatre!